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28 August 2023

How Vittles trolled London

The newsletter seems to hold its readers in low esteem.

By Finn McRedmond

Food has always been a status signifier: a vehicle to demonstrate rarefied tastes. A layman can mimic these but never truly possess them. It is expensive to gain the knowledge to casually distinguish between a bisque and a chowder. Only those with wealth and cultural capital have the means for such obvious conspicuous consumption. Restaurants are the soul of the bourgeois, and the food scene takes on all the characteristics of other highbrow media: theory, criticism, stars, barriers to entry.

Not any more! Vittles, a popular twice-weekly newsletter (with around 40,000 subscribers), first landed in the inboxes of London’s culinary elite in 2020. Founded by Jonathan Nunn (the recent recipient of a glowing New Yorker profile), Vittles aimed to disrupt establishment food media. But it is not a newsletter merely about food. It’s also an argument: for too long have broadsheet critics abetted the slow, middle-class, globalist homogenisation of London restaurants, it contends. They haven’t moved on since the 1990s; they are obsessively focused on zone 1 at the expense of everything else the city can offer; they eschew local and unassuming restaurants; they make false claims to be the ultimate arbiters of taste.

Vittles tells us it’s time to look beyond the Sunday Times Magazine restaurant column: how about West African in the shadow of Greenwich Ikea? Haringey for offal soup? Goa sausage in Hounslow?

Vittles doesn’t ignore the classic London haunts (St John, Quality Chop House, Quo Vadis) – it can and does endorse them occasionally. But the undiscovered and far afield is the spiritual home of Nunn. Vittles asks the urgent question: what if we went to Edmonton for dinner?

Nunn is impressive. He has built something serious, with diligence and a rare depth of expertise. He claims in the New Yorker that he sometimes eats up to four dinners an evening. This is not a level of dedication expected of the traditional food writer (though I’m sure many make admirable attempts). He is often said to be London’s answer to Los Angeles’ legendary Jonathan Gold: foraying off the beaten track, thrilled by the forgotten and underestimated.

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Vittles’s spirit is in the right place. But it seems an overcorrection to a solvable problem. Perhaps in 2020 the state of criticism really was stale. But at most the dial needed shifting, not destroying. And so, Vittles has become another victim of the strange cultural metastasisation of the 2010s when liking the mediocre or low brow became the ultimate indicator of elevated taste, counterintuitive proof of insider access. Love Island, Paris Hilton, even – yes – Taylor Swift. Vittles’s version of the phenomenon is to quietly imply that liking the Wolseley makes you an oik. But having the time and dedication to hop on a train for lunch in Catford? A noble guardian of taste.

This is the paradox in Vittles’s soul. It wants to dismantle trad-foodie media – to be the cool custodian of a vibrant culinary city – but it cannot help but commit the same sins. It excludes just as the so-called establishment does. Instead of freezing people out financially – as the River Café, Wiltons and Brat still successfully do – Vittles uses a knowledge based access system (just like the rightly derided Brooklyn hipster did for indie music and boutique breweries in 2011). Real piri piri chicken has been “in Clapham North all along” Vittles upbraids its reader. Only a loser would like the rotating cast of bland restaurants on Frith Street. Rather than getting “pizza at any pizzeria in London” real foodies know you should actually get lahmacun in Dalston. Oh, you didn’t know that the real pizza of London is not actually pizza at all, but instead a Turkish flat bread from E8? You fool. You oaf!

[See also: Hunger in Britain is mainstream now]

It is hard to avoid the impression that Vittles holds it readers in low esteem. Vittles concedes many of the merits of the zeitgeisty Indian restaurant group Dishoom, but reminds its readers: “If you want to get the vibe on what eating breakfast in a South Asian city is actually like then you should go down to Norbury.” It strikes me as uncharitable to suggest that Vittles’s readers (of all people) might mistake Dishoom – a very obvious simulacrum, a kind of kitchsy adult theme park – for an authentic Mumbai café. But worse than assuming such ludicrous folly on the part of the readers, Vittles fails to consider that maybe they like the simulacrum. Maybe the simulacrum is replicated in several branches over London because it’s worth replicating. Perhaps facsimiles are actually fine.

Pinballing around London, Vittles guide in hand, in search of undiscovered culinary gems is about as bourgeois as it gets. But somehow the loyal proponents of Vittles (if not Nunn himself) have adopted a patina of class activism: no better way to demonstrate the right kind of thinking than trading Covent Garden for Tottenham Hale. Of course foodie-ism suffers a dearth of legitimate diversity; for too long it has been the preserve of the elite. A course correction is welcome. But at the end of the day going to Enfield for breakfast just because you can is about as middle class as it gets. Eating dosa is not political.

This endless quest for authenticity will sometimes reveal a gem to the Vittles reader. But half way through some chewy noodles in zone 9 your mind might drift… hmmm, wouldn’t it be nice to be in Dishoom right now? In an otherwise impressive guide, Vittles suggests a cost-friendly alternative to the famous grilled turbot at Brat in Shoreditch. “For less than a third of the price you could go to Loubnan Supermarket in the Park Royal industrial estate.” Not exactly what I was going for when trying to replicate a zone 1 Michelin starred restaurant, but it is good to keep an open mind… that is, until the punchline: this isn’t even a restaurant, you have to eat this strange fish in your car.

This is an earnest mistake: that the only two metrics by which to assess good dining are first price and second food. As though location, atmosphere, tradition and vibes are irrelevant. Vittles is a great website for culinary vagrants – for those who, as Nunn says, “get it”. It is not the arbiter of the best places to eat in London. And as it (admirably!) endeavours to cut through empty hype it cannot help but do so in a derisory way. “Gymkhana is, begrudgingly, a great restaurant,” Nunn says, raising the question: why would anyone who loves food as much as Nunn begrudge a great restaurant?

Vittles doesn’t want to be for everyone. That is OK. Traditional food media didn’t want that either. Both want to see food persist as an insider pursuit. Both follow the same formula. Neither wants it to be particularly accessible. But only one might send you to eat a fish roasted over an exhaust pipe on the far side of the M25.

[See also: The ultra-processed food swindle]

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This article appears in the 06 Sep 2023 issue of the New Statesman, Crumbling Britain